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What Can Buying Cars Teach Us About Technical Debt?

The time and resources it takes to maintain technology increases as the technology ages, creating technical debt that represents a drain on government balance sheets. But there is a path forward for IT leaders.

by Teri Takai and Phil Bertolini / March 17, 2020

Spring is on its way and new plants will soon pop from the ground. As you can surmise from that comment, we both live in a cold weather state. Michigan is our home and the winters can be brutal. Spring is also synonymous with a rebirth of sorts. Government technology professionals are also finding themselves in a time of rebirth, but this rebirth is focused on the bits and the bytes. And while governments struggle with many infrastructure modernization efforts from roads, to bridges, to underground pipes, aging technical infrastructure and applications must be added to the list.

If governments are struggling to fund necessary physical improvements, how are they going to find the funds to rejuvenate back-end improvements like technology? They must prepare a strong business case that can be communicated to multiple stakeholders. The assumption here is that you must make something very complicated, very simple. This assumption is correct to a point, depending on who is sitting across the table from you. We both hail from southeast Michigan, which is the home of the domestic auto industry. So buckle up: here comes a car analogy.

You have mustered up the ability to buy a brand-new car — we just love our new cars. Over the years, you perform preventative maintenance and baby your car as much as possible. But, as with any asset, the car ages and the maintenance expenses begin to rise. Eventually, you must decide when that car needs to be replaced. In other words, when does the cost of ownership rise so much that you are better off buying a new car? We have all had this experience whether it is a house, a car or anything we buy. Government is not immune to this. You bought this new innovative technology platform, hardware and software only to watch it age over time. This technology is now a debt that must be paid; in other words, you are now suffering from technical debt.

Technical debt is a way of describing older technologies that cost more to maintain, thus creating a debt that cannot be ignored on your financial balance sheet. Technologies were originally put in place to enable government to provide services for their citizens. Over time, governments have seen their funding dwindle, their staffing numbers decline, and the need for services rise. Implementing technologies was the only way to ensure services for the masses could be provided. Those technologies are now old and the bill for replacements can be steep. The good news here is that governments will find ways to get this done.

What can governments do? First, they can strategically plan over time to replace aging technologies by smoothing out the timelines and the funding. Capital plans will have to include changing out the old while sacrificing some future new development. This will create wiggle room for the funding of replacements. The shift from owning to consuming technologies also provides an opportunity to lower the technical debt while enhancing capabilities at the same time. The shift to consuming technologies as-a-service will take care of some current needs and many future needs, especially when it comes to replacing infrastructure down the road.

The Center for Digital Government's* Digital States and Counties Surveys have an entire section on Connected Infrastructure to help quantify the efforts of governments as they replace aging technologies. Both of these surveys are out and ready for you to complete. We encourage you to use the surveys as a tool to help quantify what needs to be done and help influence your leadership to provide the funding. Don’t worry city folks, your survey will come out later this year. The modernization of technology, or managing your technical debt, is high on our priority list and we are sure it is on yours as well. Let’s work together to solve the problem.

 *The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.

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